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Funding for Small Employer Wellness Grants Remains Elusive

Small businesses face a number of barriers to offering, implementing and maintaining health benefits and wellness programs, not the least of which is the cost associated with these programs. Grants promised under Health Care Reform in 2010 were intended to reduce the cost burden  and make wellness programs more accessible for the small employer workforce. 

What the Law Promised 

The 2010 health reform law promised $200 million in grants for fiscal years 2011 through 2015 (or until expended) to small business owners who did not provide a workplace wellness program as of March 23, 2010.  To qualify for funding under the law the small employer must employ less than 100 employees who work 25 or more hours per week, and the wellness initiative must be available to all employees, regardless of health plan coverage or enrollment.  The law also included some requirements around type of wellness programs that might qualify as well as employee participation and engagement mechanisms.

What Happened? 

To receive funding, an eligible employer was supposed to submit an application and a comprehensive proposal to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) but HHS has never released details regarding the application process.  Small employers who may have wanted to apply for the money have no way of doing so today.

Health Care Reform legislation includes a number of provisions that mandate appropriations or require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to transfer trust funds to support new or existing grant programs or activities.  But many of the health care reform prevention and wellness provisions were discretionary and subject to optional funding by congressional appropriators.  Because Congress has not funded this program for small employers, HHS and the other agencies have not created a way to apply for the funds.

What's Next? 

Funding for federal wellness grants will only materialize if Congress either appropriates the funds or changes the small employer grant funding designation to "mandatory".  Lacking federal assistance, small employers will continue to grapple with the cost barriers associated implementing wellness programs.